Friday, 29 November 2013

A Requiem for Team Toughness, or, Bonnie Reimer & Clyde Bernier

In keeping with my recent slew of A Tale of Two Cities references, it's safe to say that Wednesday night's Leafs-Penguins match was the worst of games and the worst of games for both teams. Evgeni Malkin's shootout victory offered Pens fans closure to a tumultuous, and it gave Leafs nation further evidence that there is either no justice in the universe or the hockey gods truly hate Toronto.

In some ways, last night's game was worse than the Leafs' playoff loss last postseason. The buds were at least playing hockey in that dreadful Game 7 defeat to Boston. Wednesday's "efforts" suggest that the club has taken a huge step back in its progress. Now is probably the time to commemorate the passing of a key part of the team's identity.


Did Leo Komarov siphon all of the truculence out of his former teammates before returning to the KHL? How else can we explain why the Leafs have lost their much-touted toughness? On Wednesday, they let Malkin crush Phil Kessel along the boards, cross-check Mason Raymond in the face, and slash Bernier in the chest with impunity. This inaction emboldened Malkin to boll Bernier over and score the tying goal as the defenseless goalie looked on while sprawled in a heap at the back of his own net.

Of course, that goal, as even a Penguins hockey writer has observed, should have been waved off as a flagrant case of goaltender interference. Regardless, the Leafs never should have let the game come to a point in which Malkin felt safe enough to manhandle Bernier like that.

Sending Malkin a message would have been a first step toward reclaiming the team's identity, but it certainly would not be a panacea for all that ills the Leafs lately.

Last year's team worked hard to earn wins. Those wins weren't always pretty, but it was fun to watch the Leafs play through some tough games and come out as victors more often than not. This year's team seems to garner nothing but fluky wins and lopsided losses. When they win, it often feels like the team is getting away with something, and, when they lose, it seems like they're getting some much-deserved comeuppance.

I'm not generally interested in stats, but I'm sure everyone can agree that there is a problem when a team gets routinely outshot by a wide margin. Unfortunately for the Leafs, Wednesday night's game did not mark the first time that they have been outshot by a 2:1 ratio (48-24). The Leafs have basically turned James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier into the "Bonnie and Clyde" of goaltending tandems--meaning that they are wildly shot up when their posse (i.e. the defence) deserts them.

Reimer's pads shouldn't look like this after every game.

This problem with shots is an issue of common sense rather than a matter for advanced-stats analysts alone to dissect. We can all agree that it's detrimental to let Reimer and Bernier get shelled in every game. At this rate, they will both develop post-traumatic stress disorder by Christmas. The Leafs' crease has essentially become a war zone, and I'm not sure if anyone--let alone the team's young goaltenders--can handle the psychological strain of this blitzkrieg in the blue paint.

Head coach Randy Carlyle generally assesses the club's woes as a problem with consistency. However, getting outshot and out-chanced is perhaps the only thing that the Leafs have been doing consistently, and it doesn't seem to be working.

Following Wednesday's loss, Carlyle also suggested that the team gave up momentum in the game by taking too many penalties--some of which were soft calls. That may have swayed the advantage toward the Penguins for a time, but the Leafs weren't exactly shorthanded for those 25 shotless minutes of game play last night. They utterly relinquished the game to the Pens, and it's amazing that they managed to salvage a point from the debacle.

Hopefully the team can turn things around, but right now I'm not sure if the team can actually be classified as a hockey club given their inability to put puck and net together. At the same time, the team's defencemen have been chasing the puck around in their own zone like a bunch of catnip-crazed cats pursuing a laser pen's beam.


Quit staring at the laser beam and play some defence, Franson!

I'd like to see the team get back to winning, but after Wednesday, I'd be just be happy to see the Leafs play something resembling a hockey game tonight against the Sabres.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A Tale of Two Jerseys: the Islanders and Sens unveil new duds

UPDATE: I've run out of witty titles.

Hockey fans have been treated today with sneak peaks of uniforms to be worn in upcoming outdoor games. The New York Islanders leaked a photo of John Tavares wearing the New York Islanders' get up for the stadium series games against the New York Rangers on January 29, 2014. A photo of the Sens outfit for the the Heritage Classic against the Vancouver Canucks on March 2, 2014 was leaked via twitter.

So how do these jerseys measure up?

I'll start with the Sens jersey as I'm actually quite pleased with it. Here's the leaked pic:


I have to admit that I'm a bit hurt that they didn't consider my jersey design, which would have saved the cash-strapped Sens a canal-load of money through the uniform's very simplicity.

As an added bonus, fans can make "giving the fig" the official obscene hand gesture of the Ottawa Senators.

Hurt feelings aside, I think that Ottawa has picked an excellent jersey. As a matter of fact, this was the sort of jersey I had hoped to see when the Sens announced that they would honour the first incarnation of the team with the third jersey that they debuted in 2011. Those black sweaters with the old-school "O" seemed cool on the racks, but they never quite looked right on the players' backs. They made Erik Karlsson and co. look like they were rocking black leotards with striped tube-tops. 

My only qualm with this uniform is the nomenclature. The cup-less Senators have often tried to appropriate the success of Ottawa's first professional hockey club, but fans outside of the YOW have resisted such schemes. These jerseys represent the latest instance of the club's historical revisionism as they are neither throwbacks (i.e. they've never been worn by the current franchise), nor are they fauxbacks (i.e. these duds were designed after an actual hockey sweater).

We need a word that acknowledges that these jerseys are based on hockey history, and yet also emphasizes that Ottawa's current franchise has only a tangential connection to that team. Feel free to offer some suggestions.

Late last night, the New York Islanders released a pic of Tavares wearing the team's latest foray into alternate jerseys: 


My reaction was a decided "meh." I've never been a fan of this franchise's outfits, which have been either forgettable, such as the main design used for decades, or horrendous, such as the current third jersey: 

How long did the team spend designing the out at far right? The large area at centre dedicated to the player's number screams, "Afterthought!"

So, in comparison, the get-ups for the Stadium Series are underwhelming but far from awful. They have also received rave reviews from Islanders players. Tavares praised them for being "newer, more modern" than the outfits used in the current and previous Winter Classic games. While Tavares offered offhand comments were worthy of a face palm, teammate Matt Martin praised the outfits as futuristic.  

I assume that Martin is using "futuristic" in reference to the chrome colouring of the main logo, but it's possible that the back of the jersey depicts Michael J. Fox soaring the skies in a flying DeLorean. If not, he should perhaps consider the unsettling implications behind the assumption that shiny metallic clothing is futuristic. Does Martin envision hockey in the future as a mechanized sport in which human players have been replaced by concussion-proof robots?   

Anyway, the Islanders' success as producing a neither great nor terrible jerseys as an accomplishment given the franchise's track record with uniforms. When I heard about the Stadium Series, I was worried that the team would design new duds around former Captain Denis Potvin's infamous underwear ad:

Good luck trying to unsee this horrific image!

If it were up to me, I'd design a jersey that announced the Islanders' intention to terrorize the Rangers when they move from Nassau to Brooklyn. And what better way to inspire fear in the enemy than to use a uniform that evokes New York's apocalyptic destruction? I'm thinking, of course, of designing jerseys after fictional pitchman and would-be annihilator of Earth, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

Here's what the jerseys would look like.


Which would you prefer to see Tavares wearing: the sailor suit of destruction or the Stadium Series jersey?

Friday, 22 November 2013

The NHL Stole My Team!

Sportsnet has turned me into a hater of the NHL. This new-found ire has nothing to do with Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean's tendency to accost each about everything from predicting which teams will make the playoffs to debating whether peanut butter or jam should be spread on the bread first.

No, Sportsnet has revealed just how awful it is for major junior teams to be beholden to the NHL.

In Quest for the Cup, Sportsnet is covering the lead-up to the 2014 Mastercard Memorial Cup. I was ecstatic about this season of the behind-the-scenes program as it's covering my favourite OHL team: the London Knights.

That enthusiasm, however, quickly turned into despair as the first episodes have revealed just how much the Knights have struggled due to the professional league's priority over players. London began its 2013-14 campaign with 17 regulars absent from the lineup because they had been summoned by their pro-hockey overlords. If an NHL club lost 17 regulars, it would be seen as a tragedy, but for London, it has to be treated like business as usual.


So the majority of London's team has been decimated not by injury but talent. They've been plucked from the environs of the CHL due to their worthiness to be considered for a promotion. The irony is that the team and its management--headlined by Dale and Marc Hunter--has become the victim of their own success. Their ability to put together a team that won back-to-back OHL championships (in 2011-12 and 2012-13) has become a liability for the team's current campaign.

Dale Hunter offers a very well-reasoned take on this situation. He reflects on the fact that, while his journeymen played pond hockey as children, they dreamed of being in the NHL one day, not of making names for themselves in the CHL. Thus he can't fault the players for seeking nor the NHL for offering the opportunity to realize this dream. The apprentice-players, of course, have earned this opportunity by excelling under the Hunters' tutelage.

Those supportive and understanding remarks are all well and good from the point of view of a mentor, but, as a fan, I feel that my entire team has been poached by a bunch of greedy execs. Go plunder some other development league, jerks!

Proposed "anti-poaching emblem" for use in CHL markets. 

Some teams can be excused based on needs. The Pittsburgh Penguins have had a little bit of trouble keeping pucks out of their net over the past few seasons, so I can see why they would give Olli Maatta a long look in camp and the preseason. The Penguins have been a contender for years, so Maatta can benefit from mingling with their elite personnel.

There are reasons for the Penguins to audition Olli Maatta and for the Vancouver Canucks to give Bo Horvat a chance to join their playoff team, but can anyone justify Buffalo's decision to keep Nikita Zadorov with the slumping Sabres for one quarter of the NHL season?

Buffalo let Zadorov's talent wilt by icing him in only 7 games over the last two months. If being relegated to the press box wasn't bad enough, Buffalo hindered Zadorov's development even further by making him occasionally sit in a room with Steve Ott, Ryan Miller, and a bunch of other notoriously negative players on a team that's slowly going nowhere this season. How does it help a young player to keep him from playing most nights and subjecting him to a losing atmosphere on others?

More importantly, how is THIS good for player development, Buffalo? 

I know that, as the host of the tournament, the Knights are guaranteed a bye into the last round of the CHL playoffs, so it doesn't strictly matter if they have a mediocre regular season. Still, London prides itself on cultivating a winning culture, so it will be detrimental to team morale if the Knights sneak into the final round due to the dubious structure of the tournament.

Moreover, I'd hate to see London flounder in the regular season, fail to make the playoffs, and then snatch the Memorial Cup away from an a contender who earned a playoff berth. (Your ears should be burning by now, Shawinigan Cataractes.)

As of today, most of London's veterans are back in the lineup, and the team is one of the middling squads in the OHL standings. Hopefully Zadorov's return will set the stage for the Knights to clinch back-to-back-to-back OHL championships!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

A Tale of Two Goals

It was the best of goals; it was the worst of goals. It was the period of enlightenment; it was the overtime of foolishness. It was a pass based on faith; it was a pass thwarted by unbelievable misfortune.

Last night's queue of NHL games offered both the sublime and ridiculous. In Ottawa, Clarke MacArthur of the (I-hate-to-say-it) Ottawa Senators made an obscenely skillful passes to set up Kyle Turris' shorthanded goal. 


Unfortunately, the team let MacArthur down by not defending well enough to make this play the deciding action in the game, which the Sens eventually lost to the Minnesota Wild.

In case you're wondering, I hate to mention MacArthur's team because he was one of my favourite Leafs. It's bad enough that the Leafs let him walk, but to see him drive less than 9 hours away from the Air Canada Centre to play with Toronto's provincial rival is awful.

I know that I complain about Grabo's groupies, so I won't drag this out. I'll just mention that most Leafs fans detest at least one of the divisive moves made by Dave Nonis during the 2013 off season. It might have been the trade for Jonathan Bernier, the buyout of Mikhail Grabovski, the re-signing of Tyler Bozak, the UFA signing of David Clarkson, or something else. I'm sure that somewhere in the hinterland of Leafs Nation there are even fans who abhor the buyout of Mike Komisarek and the team's failure to re-sign Tim Connolly.

It's important for fans to disagree with the moves of their teams execs in order to stave off the vice of Homerism. For me, the negligent treatment of MacArthur is a safeguard against drinking the blue and white Kool-Aid.

Anyway, on the diagonally-opposed side of the league from Ottawa, another game involved a ridiculous pass. The Ducks blew their chance to put a way a resilient New Jersey Devils squad by making one of the worst passes in NHL history during overtime.

If MacArthur' pass was inspired by Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, then Ben Lovejoy's pass was inspired by Thalia, the muse of comedy. Lovejoy tried to clear a loose puck from Jonas Hiller's crease and ended up banking the puck off of Corey Perry's shin and into his own net. Here's a clip of this farcical end to a hard-fought game.

Perry's hapless positioning means that he should technically be credited with this atrocious own-goal. Fortunately for him, it won't be difficult to let this awful incident recede into oblivion. For once, the anonymity of playing in Anaheim has benefits as the Californian MSM's obsession with NBA, NHL, and MLB teams has a Lethe-like ability to cleanse local sportscasters' minds of mishaps relating to the NHL. Had Perry been playing in Toronto, he would have been plagued with replays of this own-goal for weeks.

Still, that goal will undobtedly be the worst in his all-star career career.What makes matters even worse is the fact that this horrendous end would never have come to pass had the game not been prolonged by the sensational play of Martin Brodeur. Mere moments before the absurd game-winning-goal was scored, Martin Brodeur looked woefully out of position as he was sprawled out on one side of his crease while the puck was lying on the very lip of the goal mouth. Somehow Brodeur managed to get his glove on the puck and denied Mathieu Perrault's attempt to score on this unexpected gift from the hockey gods.

At some point, Brodeur is either going to reveal that he is an illegitimate son of Zeus, or he will suffer some Faustian fate confirming once and for all that he sold his soul in exchange for a preternatural ability to stop pucks. Don't be surprised to see him backstopping a different group of devils when hell finally freezes over.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Menacing Maple Leafs: Kadri the Tawdry and Lupul the Unscrupulous

Nazem Kadri's suspension yesterday caused some calamity among Leafs Nation. Some voiced disgust at the inconsistency of the NHL's Department of Player Safety. Those fans were often chastised by those who asserted that blown calls (such as Brian Gionta's and Milan Lucic's undisciplined hits on goaltenders) don't justify turning a blind eye to similar incidents.

Kadri's hit merited discipline of some sort--perhaps three games was too severe, but some sort of punishment was justified. The justness of the sanction, however, does not mean that fans can't be frustrated with the NHL's inconsistency.

Indeed, Leafs fans are probably particular aggravated because commentators have been reprehending the franchise quite a bit lately. As though these censures weren't bad enough on their own, some of them are coming from Mike Milbury and Kerry Fraser, commentators who have apparently lost all sense of irony.

Mike Milbury claimed that Kadri's hit on Mikael Granlund was "even worse" than the collision with Niklas Backstrom. Milbury argued, "This is when someone has to take care of Nazem Kadri." By "take care" he meant fight: Milbury clarified that opponents should find a way to fight Kadri or another one of the Leafs' stars in order to police the game.

The league, however, doesn't appear to agree with any of Milbury's comments:


The NHL exonerated Kadri for the hit and tacitly supported Randy Carlyle's suggestion that the refs overreacted by giving Kadri a match penalty for hitting Granlund, who had his head down and didn't properly prepare himself for taking a legal hit while in possession of the puck along the boards. 

My problem with Milbury isn't so much that he's calling on the league's enforcers to take runs at the Leafs' star players. No, I'm taking exception with the fact that he's making such a call shamelessly. To put things bluntly, no player in the league today has manhandled an opposing club as much as Milbury mangled the New York Islanders. The list of players that he traded away, opted not to draft, or couldn't draft due to inept trades is damning. Had it not been for Milbury, the Islanders could have had Zdeno Chara, Jason Spezza, and Roberto Luongo on their current roster. 

Milbury was either the most inept General Manager in NHL history or the most skilled saboteur, who conducted espionage for rival clubs while ostensibly managing the Isles. 

Is this giving Milbury too much credit?

Either way, it seems fair (according to Milbury's sense of justice) to expect Matt Carkner or another Islander to give the former GM a dressing down for what he did to the club. I'm not arguing that NHL players should get into a physical altercation with a civilian, but that would be poetic justice in this case as Milbury once beat up a fan with his own shoe at a Rangers-Bruins game.

The other commentator to harangue the Leafs lately is Kerry Fraser. Yes, that Kerry Fraser. The former referee, who achieved notoriety for blowing a crucial call on Wayne Gretzky during a playoff game between the Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs, called out a current ref for missing a call.

On November 2nd, Henrik Sedin dodged Lupul's errant elbow during a game. Lupul's aimless appendage ultimately struck Kadri's head, which possibly skewed #43's judgment of when it is appropriate to pull a Lucic or a Gionta on an opposing goaltender.

Here's a video of the incident. I'm not going to weigh in on whether the move was or wasn't intentional, or whether or not Lupul should have been given a match penalty for attempting to injure another player. I'm not even going to take issue with what Kerry Fraser said about the incident as his comments were well-reasoned and thoughtful.

That said, come on! Does Kerry Fraser really need to bring up this issue? Couldn't he let someone else point out the supposedly blown call? Has he not been receiving enough hate mail from Leafs Nation lately? Was this commentary staged for an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm as a sequel to the Bill Buckner episode?



Seriously, even if Lupul had gotten away with climbing on top of Roberto Luongo's net and delivering a WWE-style elbow drop to Sedin's head, Fraser shouldn't be the one to call anyone out for the blown call. If there are any universal truths in life, they are that Sean Avery should never be upset when anyone refuses to shake his hand, Claude Julien should not accuse other teams of embellishment, and Kerry Fraser shouldn't rebuke anyone for a blown call. 

Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Suspendables

Occasionally, a hockey team achieves such notoriety that their bad reputation is cemented in a nickname that defines the team's identity (whether they like it or not). These nicknames often serve as time capsules that preserve key moments in a franchise's history. Boston's grit in the late 60s and early 70s merited the nickname "The Big Bad Bruins." The pugnacious and pugilistic play of the mid '70s Philadelphia Flyers has been commemorated by the nickname "The Broad Street Bullies."

The 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs are on the verge of earning such a memorable moniker. And that nickname is...


So, who are The Suspendables? 

1. David Clarkson (10 regular-season games)

Why he was suspended: David Clarkson got into trouble in the preseason when he left the bench to protect Phil Kessel from a raging John Scott. Scott was looking to avenge fallen teammate Corey Tropp, who was given a punch-induced nap care of Jamie Devane.

As Steve Dangle pointed out, Clarkson left the bench, but he didn't throw any punches or participate in the ensuing line brawl whatsoever. He was basically intervening in the situation as a peace keeper. Surprisingly, the NHL decided to give Clarkson the mandatory 10-game suspension rather than nominating for the Noble Peace Prize for his efforts to restore order and good government to the game.

What Clarkson should have done instead: I guess that Clarkson should have left Kessel out to dry. He could then appeal to the United Nations and request that Scott be sanctioned for his hostile and provocative gestures toward a non-combatant (Kessel). 

2. Phil Kessel (2 preseason games)

Why he was suspended: When Scott "warned" Kessel that he was about to answer for the perceived slight against Tropp, Kessel did what most of us would do: he took a defensive swing against the approaching ogre; then he channeled his inner Jeremy Wotherspoon and skated out of Dodge as fast as he could. 

Unfortunately, Kessel allowed his own vindictiveness to get the better of him. His first slash against Scott could have been chalked up to self-defence, but the second slash against the Sabres' behemoth (who was being restrained at the time) was clearly performed out of spite. Although Scott absolved Kessel of any wrongdoing, the NHL saw fit to give Kessel a slap on the wrist that stung as much as a "snap-bracelet": the league ordered Kessel to sit out the rest of the preseason.

What Kessel should have done instead: Phil should have channeled his inner shepherd and slayed Scott with a sling. He would then become Captain of the Leafs, restore the franchise to glory, and write some hockey-themed psalms. Eventually Kessel would have a treacherous son who would try to overtake Phil's NHL records, and the whole thing would end tragically, but he would have a hall-of-fame career nonetheless. 

3. Carter Ashton (2 regular-season games)

Why he was suspended: I've covered this issue already. Basically, Brendan Shanahan needed to undermine enforcer-justice and continue the league's time-honoured tradition of inconsistent disciplinary rulings. 

What he should have done instead: Ashton should have appealed Shanahan's ruling based on the argument that he had already been reprimanded for his actions by a member of his union: Shane O'Brien, who censured Ashton through physical reprisal.

Ashton could then take the issue to an independent arbitrator and watch as the NHL and NHLPA got into a zero-sum battle over the nature and appropriate implementation of discipline in the league. He probably wouldn't win the case, but watching the league and its players union viciously tear each other and the fabric of the NHL apart might make Ashton's broken nose feel better.

4. Nazem Kadri (3  regular-season games)

Why he was suspended: For this.

What he should have done instead: He should have lured Backstrom out of the net so that he could deliver an even more devastating hit and get away with it like Milan Lucic did.

Pictured: a hit that merited no suspension--not even a fine. (Source)

Failing that, Kadri should have chosen to run over James Reimer instead of Niklas Backstrom.

Pictured: the lack of quality control at the NHL's Department of Player Safety.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Gone Grabo Gone

In case you haven't noticed, a vocal contingent of Leafs fans are still upset about Dave Nonis' decision to buyout disgruntled centre Mikhail Grabovski last summer. While every move made by the Maple Leafs is heavily scrutinized, this buyout has caused dissent of Guy-Fawkes proportions.

I hate to say it, but I miss the old days when despondent fans would simply wear paper bags over their heads.

I wasn't thrilled about the move when it happened, but I quickly came around after two developments: Grabo's (*cough*) "professionalism" when departing the team, and the Grabovski worship (a.k.a "Grabophilia") that followed #84's departure. 

I understand that it must be awful to see one's favourite player given a dishonourable discharge via compliance buyout. Still it seems that by now (over 4 months later) people should be moving toward acceptance as per the 5 Stages of Grief.

When word of the buyout first broke, many fans experienced the first stage of grief (denial and isolation): they went on twitter to express incredulity over MLSE's purported stupidity, or they signed out of social media entirely because they couldn't bear the bad news.

Others jumped immediately to the second stage (anger) by denouncing Randy Carlyle and Dave Nonis on twitter. Their tweets represent the first time that a head coach and GM have been publicly charged with treason against Toronto's hallowed hockey club.

Less than a month after the buyout, bloggers entered the third stage--bargaining. Posts (such as this one) diligently put together scenarios in which the Leafs could keep Grabovski, let Bozak walk, buyout John-Michael Liles, and lead the team back to the promised land after wandering in the desert of their 46-year Stanley Cup drought.

Since that time, progress has halted entirely. Less than two weeks ago, one prominent hockey writer added the latest delusional installment of bargaining.


Putting aside the fact that this idea had been proposed two months earlier, let's focus on the more important point ignored by Grabsessed writers. Nonis didn't panic about the salary cap and foolishly buyout Grabovski. He bought out #84 because MLSE didn't want him in the organization anymore--not in the top six, not in the bottom six, not even in the Raptors' lineup. 

Let's face it, MLSE's dislike must have been very strong if they didn't even want to exile Mikhail to the Raptors.

While the bargainers have refused to move forward, other commentators have ironically taken steps backward in dealing with grief. Grabo has long been the darling of the advanced stats community. These bloggers are known for two things: testifying to the greatness of the "Belarusian Biter" and preaching that the Leafs will, at some point, regress (i.e. lose more games) due to unsustainable stats (e.g. shooting percentages). 

Given these fundamental beliefs, it's rather ironic that they themselves are regressing presently in their Grabo grieving. When Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland fell to injuries in quick succession, twitter flooded with sarcastic tweets that rebuked Nonis for not signing highly-prized UFA Mikhail Grabovski when a moronic GM made him available last summer. Grabo clearly has some circean ability to morph devoted Leafs fans into a bunch of nose-less face-spiters.

Seriously, has anyone in the fancy stats community considered the likelihood that Grabo's possession numbers stem from necromancy?

The overarching irony is that fans are acting hostile toward the Leafs rather than being happy for Grabo. Since leaving the Leafs, Grabo has gone notched 14 points in 15 games with the Washington Capitals. You'd think that would make the Grabophiles happy, right? Wrong--they use his performance to harangue the Leafs for mismanaging their roster.

To recap, Grabo wasn't happy working with Carlyle, and Carlyle wasn't happy with Grabo. The buyout offered a way for the two sides to part amicably. Grabo is doing well with Washington while the Leafs are winning without him. Hurt feelings and misgivings about the Leafs' depth at centre aside, isn't this the best possible outcome for both parties?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Introducing the Nannystate Hockey League

Should we create laws to prohibit everything that we dislike? The NHL seems to think so. Following the infamous fight between Ray Emery of the Philadelphia Flyers and Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals, the NHL plans to discuss more rules aimed to stop bad things from happening.

Personally, I disliked the Emery-Holtby fight for numerous reasons. However, I don't think that new rules should be imposed to prevent such fights from happening. Nor do I think that we should prohibit everything else that I dislike in life. People sometimes act like jerks, but we shouldn't react to such breaches of decorum by imposing new laws that diminish the liberties of jerks and non-jerks alike.

Unfortunately, Gary Bettman and Brendan Shanahan don't share this view. Following the fight, Bettman announced that the league will review the matter with its general managers. That discussion will include the possible implementation of a 10-game suspension for goalie fights.

"Nanny Gary" has apparently received too NHL 911 calls.

Brendan Shanahan backed up Bettman in saying, "I hate what Ray Emery did. I wouldn't like it if I were a teammate of his." The Flyers couldn't disagree with Shanahan more: the team started Emery in the very next game, and Vincent Lecavalier referred to the incident as a "team bonding" exercise.

Obviously Bettman and Shanahan's outrage is not shared by the NHL as a whole, but the league will nevertheless discuss rule changes to prevent such actions from happening again.

It seems that Bettman is getting rather rule obsessed in the twilight of his career as the Commissioner of the NHL. This year alone we have seen new rules that restrict the size of goalie equipment, require fighters to keep their helmets on during scraps, and forbid the Alexander Ovechkins of the league from tucking otheir jerseys (at least in some circumstances).

The NHL isn't stopping there. Along with penalizing pugnacious goalies, the Board of Governors will discuss the possibility of suspending players who instigate fights in the third period. While execs busy themselves in manacling enforcers, they will also likely renew debates on banning the spin-o-rama from shootouts.

The BoG, however, isn't concerned about how the existing rules are disrupting the game. Setting up face-offs takes about a year as linesmen arbitrarily wave out skaters. The linesmen must similarly interfere in fights should combatants remove their own or each other's helmets. On top of the dress code, officials are apparently expected to regulate the decorum of hockey fights: hence the refs assessed game misconducts to the Vancouver Canucks' Tom Sestito and the Toronto Maple Leafs' Colton Orr for the verbal lead up to a fight that was ultimately prorogued by the unwarranted penalty.

Still, Bettman and/or the owners feel that there is too much freedom in the game. Cue the obligatory, Simpsons-inspired parody of NHL's dogmatic tendencies.

"I'm an an amendment to be, yes, a new rule from Gary.
I'm just waiting on the league's BoG.
There are unwritten rules but no player obeys them.
I want to make it legal for the linesmen to tase them
'Cause we must impose some decency.
(At least I think that we must/And I think that we must
'Cause player justice ain't something to trust.)"

Instead of acting like a helicopter parent, Gary should let the game breathe. Some players will cross the line and instigate fights with reluctant combatants like Holtby. The John Scotts might target the Phil Kessels, but the offending players, in turn, will be targeted by others. Shane O'Brien of the Calgary Flames demonstrated that players can be relied upon to censure colleagues: after the Leafs' Carter Ashton delivered a questionable hit on Derek Smith, O'Brien chastised Ashton on the ice. My only qualm with this situation was that O'Brien had to serve an instigator penalty for defending his teammate.

Rather than punish Emery, I'd be more inclined to censure the players who allowed 'raging Ray' to skate up to Holtby unimpeded. None of the seated or skating Caps broke up the fight when their goalie clearly needed a ceasefire. (Of course, the seated Caps didn't help Holtby because there's a stupid rule prohibiting players on the bench from intervening.)

If the BoG insists that that the only way to prevent bad things from happening to each team's "precious snowflake" is to impose more and more restrictive rules on the game, then they might as well change the name of the NHL to "Nannystate Hockey League."


Friday, 1 November 2013

Get Carter: Ashton's suspension highlights NHL's inconsistent justice

Brendan Shanahan of the NHL's Department of Player safety has suspended Carter Ashton of the Toronto Maple Leafs for his illegal hit on Derek Smith of the Calgary Flames.

According to Shanahan, the hit was "extremely dangerous" and could have been avoided. Alternatively, Ashton could have minimized the impact by not extending his arms in following through with the illegal check.

And so #37 goes from receiving a two-minute penalty to a two-game suspension for the same hit. Ashton has never been fined or suspended for actions in any of his previous 24 NHL games, and the incident in his 25th did not cause an injury.

I'm not necessarily objecting to the fact that Ashton was suspended. He clearly hit Smith from behind and launched the Flames' defenceman into the boards. However, I am taking issue with the reasons for suspending him and not other players.

If Ashton deserves to be suspended for a dangerous hit that didn't end in injury, then Mike Fisher of the Nashville Predators should probably be exiled to the Greek Elite League (if such a hockey organization exists) for his potentially devastating hit on Cody Franson.

UPDATE: Yes, such a league does exist, but it is called the Hellenic National Ice Hockey Team. I have not heard back if the team is nicknamed the "Trojan Horses" or "Greek Fires."

On October 10, Fisher rammed Franson face-first into a stanchion. The dangerousness of the play could have been minimized had Fisher not extended his arms. Instead of merely colliding into the barrier, Franson became the unfortunate cream filling in a Fisher-stanchion Oreo. While Derek Smith played on after the hit from Ashton, Franson had to leave the game after surfacing from the pool of blood that formed as he was sprawled out on the ice.

Fisher was given a game misconduct for delivering one of the dirtiest types of hits in the game--one made infamous by Zdeno Chara--but he didn't receive any supplemental discipline from Shanahan. Fisher wasn't even reprimanded, which is disappointing as Shanahan often balances his inconsistent brand of justice by reprehending players such as Rick Nash for dirty hits.   

Some might say that the ejection from the game was punishment enough for Fisher, but Ashton's retributive beating at the hands of Shane O'Brien was a comparably sufficient form of punishment. Based on his comments on enforcers, I think that Flames exec Brian Burke might feel the same way.  

This picture (source) won Ashton a walk-on (or "shamble-on") role in The Walking Dead.

So why was Ashton punished more harshly than Fisher? Is the league desperate to avoid the wrath of Carrie Underwood, who was (to the chagrin of every female hockey player) voted one of the most influential people in hockey by The Hockey News? Is the league concerned about tarnishing Fisher's reputation as "a man of faith on the ice"?  

We may never know what unseen hands tip the scales of Shanahan's justice, but we can certainly count on being blindsided by the inconsistency of the league's future rulings. 

The biggest bigot in hockey is....me?

Normally I'm about as interested in protesting trivial things as I am inclined to mope nostalgically about the time before I was born as "the good ole days" that I'll never be a part of due to a cruel trick of fate. Neither of these morose activities appeals to me.

Today, however, I'm starting to wonder if I'm actually a spiteful conservative who would make Archie Bunker look like Julian Assange. Here's how I might look in 20 years.

"Boy the way Dave Keon played. Made the '67 Habs dismayed. Ballard led the cup parade. Those were the days. And you knew who started in net then. The blueline bloomed with great d-men. Nonis we could use a man like Tim Horton again. Didn't need no UFAs: contracts made sure no one strayed. Gee, the old reserve clause was great. Those were the days!" 

Looking back at the three NHL games that I've attended so far, I've noticed a strange trend: all of them were against Eastern Conference teams. That might not seem surprising, but keep in mind that I live in Calgary and haven't seen an intra-conference contest yet.

This situation makes me wonder if I'm subconsciously snubbing the West due to last year's lockout. Since I couldn't see any teams from the East last year, I'm making up for lost time by seeing only inter-conference contests this season.

As dumb as that sounds, it almost makes sense on account of the fact that I was severely disappointed when the lockout canceled the game between the Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs that was supposed to be held last December. Is it possible that my disappointment is manifesting itself in this apparently prejudicial treatment of the West?

If so, my inadvertent bigotry doesn't end there. All of those 2013-14 games have been against Original Six teams: the Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs, and the Detroit Red Wings (which takes place tonight!).

It seems that I'm not only bitter about the lockout but equally malcontent with the NHL's previous expansions. I generally admire all of the Original Six teams for their rich histories and storied rivalries, but I didn't think that such admiration could cross over into nostalgia for the "good ole days" before the NHL introduced ice to the sunny state of California.

I've made my peace with the Los Angeles Kings, but I virulently insists that the California Golden Seals were the greatest affront to the integrity of hockey since the league introduced forward passing. 

If I don't check this insidious hostility to the NHL (which my subconscious probably refers to sardonically as the "Newfangled Hockey League"), I might end up going to the Air Canada Centre just to wave both a "Get Off My Lawn" sign and a clenched fist at every franchise founded after 1967.

Perhaps this curmudgeonly condition is common among Leafs Nation. It's understandable that a fan base waiting for its team's first post-expansion, post-Beatles, and post-Moon-landing championship would scorn every innovation in the NHL since the Leafs last hoisted the Stanley Cup.

Maybe it'll take a championship to help fans such as myself come to terms with the NHL of the 21st century (although I'll still probably sneer at anyone who enjoys the garish spectacle of hockey broadcast in colour).